About Tom Schirtz

Tom Schirtz is Head of Exhibition Design and Production at the Skirball. He’s also an artist, graphic designer, photographer, writer, Air Force Veteran, and onetime short order cook. As a printmaker and curator, he has worked with the likes of Richard Serra, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ellsworth Kelly. His favorite memory of that period of his life is sharing zucchini with Alan Ginsberg (long story). Tom is smitten with the Southern California desert and considers a particular (secret) peak in Joshua Tree National Park his favorite place in the known universe.

But Did We Cut It?

The Skirball is one of the few institutions I know of where the exhibition designer takes an active role in the production and installation of the exhibition itself. One of the tasks of my job that seems to invite a lot questions is the production and installation of the exhibition text on the walls.

Here at the Skirball, exhibition wall text is made out of cut vinyl. The vinyl comes in a wide variety of colors and levels of transparency. The adhesive used to place it on the wall ranges from extremely temporary to nearly permanent. It’s versatile and looks clean, which is why it’s a favored material for displaying text and other graphic elements on walls.

Although I favor cut vinyl over other methods of displaying text (printed panels, handbooks, etc.), installing it is a fairly intensive process that involves many steps. First, the curators send me the approved text. I then decide on the right font and size (color is usually determined beforehand). “Draft” files are then sent to the plotter, which uses a small knife blade to cut the outlines of the letters into a sheet of thin adhesive vinyl.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

A wall quote ready to be cut.

The plotter begins cutting.

The plotter begins cutting.

 

The parts of the vinyl that aren’t used are then loosened and pulled away in a process called “weeding.”

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

The negative spaces left after letters are removed.

 

Since the width of the roll of vinyl is limited to the size of the cutter, really large sections of letters are done individually or have to be pieced together directly on the wall.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

After the weeding is completed, a low-tack adhesive “transfer” sheet is applied on top of the vinyl and its backing sheet (or “release paper”).

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl

 

I then apply the different versions to the wall to determine which style to choose. It doesn’t usually require putting every version up to get a sense of what works best.

Skirball_exhibition prep_cut vinyl
The letters or sections of letters are taped the wall and the backing is removed, leaving only the vinyl and transfer sheet. Continue reading

Building Baseman’s House

How exactly did we build Gary Baseman’s house in our Getty Gallery for the exhibition, The Door Is Always Open? It probably would take about fifteen separate blogposts to describe it and I’d still be leaving things out. So, by sharing some behind-the-scenes images, I’ll try to show how we went from this:

IMG_2956…to this:

IMG_2903…to this:

IMG_3688Hopefully, this will help explain why we decided against this:

(The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here)

The initial design plan called for using pre-made movie set flats such as the one shown here

…and opted for this:

(he design team used period furniture and windows along with home moulding and trim to create their own “sets”.

The design team used period furniture and windows along with home molding and trim to create their own “sets”

There are so many good discussions to have it’s hard to know where to begin. From how best to use the furniture from Gary’s parents: Continue reading

Abraham Lincoln: A Living Myth Comes to Life

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Abraham Lincoln’s personal portfolio, 1861. Lincoln’s cabinet members had matching leather portfolios with their names stamped in gilt. Lincoln’s was saved from souvenir hunters on the night of his death by his son Robert. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

 

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Skirball Registrar, Cynthia Tovar holds Abraham Lincoln’s portfolio. Courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

I have worked in museums for close to twenty years and have visited them all over the world for longer than that. I have personally handled ancient pottery, figurines, weapons, furniture, and art objects—everything from Egyptian funerary relics to Civil War uniforms. While I won’t deny that I consider being able to have a hands-on relationship with these objects an extraordinary benefit of my career, I have to say that I am rarely “touched back” by them. However, when our registrars called me to let me know they were unpacking Abraham Lincoln’s valise for our “Lincoln Spotlight” exhibit, I knew this time was going to be different.

A task of our Museum registrars is the inspection and assessment of each object as it comes into our care (and as it leaves as well). Then we have to figure out the best way to display the object while protecting it from any further damage. On the surface there was nothing spectacular about Lincoln’s valise—it’s made of old leather that is quite worn and somewhat brittle and it lacks any decorative quality; it’s a utilitarian object meant to carry papers and books. Even having Lincoln’s name stamped on the front is not that interesting in and of itself. However, knowing that it most likely once carried the Emancipation Proclamation made it worth having here as part of the exhibit. At least that’s what I was thinking as I rode the elevator down to our Collections area to take a look.

page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

Page 1 of Positive Photostat of handwritten Emancipation Proclamation on four leaves, signed by Lincoln. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

 

 

 

What I wasn’t prepared for was how deeply moved I was as I watched the portfolio be unwrapped. In that instant, Abraham Lincoln became a real human being to me, rather than a “living myth.”

The Man Behind the Myth

My earliest recollection of the personage of Lincoln was the penny in my loafers—that face on the coin that fit into my shoe. Of course, my impression of him changed somewhat once school started and I learned that he had been my president.

Not long afterwards, my hometown of Safety Harbor, Florida, held a beard-growing contest. Continue reading

Making a Case (or Three) for Creating the United States

From the outset of planning for Creating the United States, the Museum team and our design partner, Fred Fisher and Partners, hoped to take a non-traditional approach to designing an exhibition of documents and objects usually displayed in small cases high off the ground. Due to the fragile nature of most of these items, we knew that light levels would have to be kept low. This low light combined with the need to lay the rare documents and objects back at an angle (positioning them upright would damage them) could potentially make it difficult for viewers to read or even see them clearly.

Our approach was to get the viewer as close as possible to the objects as we could and to create a color palette that would allow the eye to take in as much available light as possible by making the background “disappear.”

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Initial concept design drawings by “FFP,” Fred Fisher and Partners. The cases are shallow so that visitors can get as close as possible to them without having to bend over a case.

Once the case structure was decided upon, the (somewhat daunting) task of laying out the locations of each object began. Each object was color coded by lender, type (original, copy, or facsimile); light level required; and hierarchy.

Layout schematic.

Layout schematic.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

Schematics are printed and placed into position in the casework.

 

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Adjustments are made for a wide variety of reasons: curatorial narrative changes; matting and framing decisions; lighting requirements; and more.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Casework plans are drawn up… and sent to be fabricated.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

Steel case armatures are delivered.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

As always, we start with an empty space. Remember that this is the same gallery where we installed Houdini: Art and Magic, Women Hold Up Half the Sky, and many other exhibitions.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

Wooden cleats are installed to hold the steel armatures.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

While the cases are being constructed, our team builds the various pedestals and mounts for books and three-dimensional objects.

The mounts are placed in the case.

More diagrams.

Placeholder objects help keep it organized.

Continue reading

Truck, Bam, Dot

The traveling exhibition Project Mah Jongg—which debuted in New York City at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and opened here just last week—arrived in the largest truck that’s ever driven onto the Skirball campus. Somewhat ironic since the show was about to be installed in our smallest (yet plenty spacious) gallery.

This truck has a full kitchen and bathroom!

This truck has a full kitchen and bathroom!

My colleagues Pete Willoughby, Mike Trefzger, and Johnny Hirsch (L–R) transport just one of the many crates towards the gallery. This terrace is now the outdoor mah jongg playing area.

My colleagues Pete Willoughby, Mike Trefzger, and Johnny Hirsch (L–R) transport just one of the many crates towards the gallery. This terrace is now the outdoor mah jongg playing area.

Continue reading

Building the Sky

For years I have longed to make full use of our museum galleries’ great ceiling spaces. With the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, we not only had the chance to do something special with the Getty Gallery “sky,” as it were, but our first-ever opportunity to integrate the full play of daylight within the space into the design. The team jumped right on board with the idea and began to think of different ways we could use the ceiling not only as a visual element but as an interactive component that would add to the show’s content as well.

View of the sky in the Women Hold Up Half the Sky gallery

This is how Wish Canopy, a commissioned work by architectural office Layer, is looking these days. Colorful and luminous.

The Los Angeles–based architecture practice Layer was approached to create an installation that would somehow represent the sky. One major inspiration was Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree project. For Wish Tree, people are invited to write their personal wishes for peace and tie them to a tree branch. The fact that our “sky” would be mostly out of reach of visitors precluded a hands-on interaction with the artwork in the same manner as for Wish Tree. Nonetheless we wanted the installation to be more than a sculpture and provide an outlet for creative and affective responses to the exhibition’s content.

Consulting curator Karina White (left) and Layer co-founder Lisa Little discuss prototypes in Layer’s offices in Venice.

The team came up with the idea of inviting each visitor to write down a wish for girls and women around the world and have it added to a “sky of wishes.” The resulting sculpture, which would transform over time, would give visual testament to the power of collective action to effect change. Continue reading

Book of Ideas, “Eddies of Calm”

Shortly after we opened the exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky, I was asked, “So how do you design a show based on a book of ideas?” Good question. For one thing, I didn’t do it alone but as part of a core team of designers, curators, educators, and advisors. Through a lot of discussion, a few key ideas emerged that would drive all of the exhibition design, from signage to furniture.

First, we wanted to move away from any design language that would be typical of a museum art exhibition—rigid walls, framed images, projection rooms—and strive to create “safe” environments for viewing, absorbing, considering, and discussing some very difficult subject matter. We would come to refer to them as “eddies of calm.”

Preliminary floor plans show spaces defined by gently curving walls.

Pictured here during installation, the basic structural armature creates the “eddies of calm.” The curved ceiling of Moshe Safdie’s architecture was a major influence on our design as well as our initial idea of fully utilizing the “sky” of the gallery.

Continue reading